From the moment it was clear that the Hokies could not win the ACC Coastal Division title, every game in the 2012 season became a stepping stone to a program-defining moment in the Georgia Dome on August 31st. Making a bowl allowed for 3 weeks of additional practice that could be put towards getting repetitions for young players who would be counted on to contribute next season, and the bowl matchup versus Rutgers stood as an opportunity for Frank Beamer to learn about the makeup of his 2013 roster and coaching staff.
The lessons learned from the Russell Athletic Bowl serve as a microcosm for everything that has frustrated Hokie fans since Ricky Bustle left the program. Bud Foster's defense advanced, utilizing the 4-4 scheme with aggressive blitzing against the run and pass, but he added elements of Dick Lebeau's zone blitz by frequently dropping ends and tackles into coverage, and playing a seemingly more effective fire-zone in behind the blitz. At the same time, the offense seemed to be more of a vaudevillian comic sketch that would have been more appropriate if the theme from Benny Hill was dubbed over the voice of Joe Tessitore.
While the offense was not only bad, it also failed to provide much of a glimpse into the future, as wacky wizards of O'Stinesomeman chose to feature a scheme and lineup that likely will look nothing like what we see next year.
Despite all the negativity, anger, and frustration coursing through my veins regarding the offensive performance, I find myself feeling very good about next football season. If nothing else, the Russell Athletic Bowl affirmed the new approach that Bud Foster has adopted with his defensive scheme, and it assures HokieNation that the offense next season will look nothing like the comedy of errors we have seen through long stretches this season.
Screw the Lunchpail, Lets Berzerker
The 2012 season saw a radical transformation in the approach of the Bud Foster defense. Early in the year, Foster utilized the 2004-2011 defensive alignment we were accustomed to, with four defensive linemen, the backer playing a hybrid of a 3-4 inside linebacker and a 4-3 strong side linebacker, and the whip playing outside of the tackle box and often replaced by a nickel defensive back. The system was created by Bud Foster as a response to the use of zone blocking and quick short passes that decimated the old wide-tackle six Hokie defense towards the end of 2003. The opening matchup with Georgia Tech prevented Foster from having as much teaching time with his young depth players as they scrapped their normal defense in order to play a read and react 4-3 which had an excellent performance in stopping the run against Georgia Tech.
Then, things went horribly wrong against Pittsburgh. The front seven was decimated as Pitt used Foster's old tendency of crashing the backside defensive end to stop the zone stretch play against him, while the secondary showed their inexperience as a pedestrian Pitt passing attack continually found holes in Hokie zone coverage. Foster went from playing the whip in every situation, to leaning heavily on a nickel package. As injuries and frustration mounted, it became clear that the 4-2-5 look was not well suited to stopping the new spread offensive systems that feature read-option runs and play action that forces a defense to read and react.
Foster's solution started to take shape against Clemson. He started to creep Kyshoen Jarrett up, almost into the area where the backer has traditionally played. Bruce Taylor started to align outside of the tight end to the strong side, and Michael Cole started playing in the area normally patrolled by the whip, with Bonner either covering man or playing deep centerfield. When Michael Cole was injured, Alonzo Tweedy was reintroduced to the lineup, and the Hokies essentially played man coverage while having 8 in the box to defend the run every play. Initially, we saw most of the blitzing in this scheme come from the whip and backer off the edge, and as the scheme continued to evolve, it seemed to make the defensive tackles much more effective creating initial penetration.
In the Russell Athletic Bowl, Bud Foster's new vision emerged into full view. The Hokies continued to use the 4-4 alignment, but added new elements that will make them very difficult to game plan for next season. The biggest weakness early in the transition was almost total dependency on man-to-man coverage behind the eight-man front, which allowed for big plays, especially against Florida State. Against Rutgers, the Hokies started to drop defensive line into coverage, created a "fire-zone" approach where it would appear that the Hokies were sending 7 players, yet would have 4 or 5 clogging passing lanes in the underneath zone.
Here we have a terrific example on a 2nd-and-11 early in the game. The Hokies put 9 men on the line of scrimmage, with two corners playing 7 yards off.
At the snap, both corners play robber coverage. They are responsible for the outside receivers, but quarter inside to read the QB's eyes. They play like safeties until the receiver threatens their cushion. The whip, rover, and free safety are in man coverage pressed against the slot receivers. They play inside-out, trying to force a throw to the outside where they have over the top help by the robber corners. The press prevents a quick throw. To prevent an accurate deeper throw, the Hokies send both backers and all four linemen at the snap, but both defensive tackles tie up each guard and then retreat into soft underneath zones at 5 yards deep. This impedes the quarterback's vision and takes away a quick slant or skinny post, which are the ideal routes against the robber coverage of the corners. Thanks to the tackles distraction, the left tackle panics and tries to drop down on the mike backer, leaving the right defensive end unblocked. On the right side, the tackle takes the end, leaving Bruce Taylor unblocked. The quick pressure forces Nova to throw to his first read, which is a quick in route by the boundary split end. Kyle Fuller reads the QB's eyes and jumps the route (which his robber technique allows him to do) and he deflects the high inaccurate pass. An accurate pass would have resulted in a possible interception.
This is beautifully designed football, which incorporates Foster's system approach, but unlike early in the season, it has aggressive athletic defenders working downhill to create chaos. It is worth noting, on the resulting 3rd down the Hokies run the same blitz, but bring Tyler from a traditional linebacker position and also bring Tweedy to force a Bruce Taylor deflection.
This system only works with a defensive line that is athletic enough to attack their assigned gaps while not over-pursuing. In the first quarter, Rutgers attempted to use the bend-back zone play that Pitt and UNC used to decimate the Hokies front. The play is simple in that each blocker zone blocks to the play side, just like a normal zone stretch play. However, the end blocker away from the stretch side "allows" his defender to cross his face, which would allow the defender to make the tackle if it was a stretch play but instead traps the defender inside for the tailback's designed cutback. At the end of the first quarter, Corey Marshall had a disruptive series where almost singularly forced a three and out by disrupting a wide open screen on first down followed by an unabated pass rush and deflection on third down, but it was a seemingly mundane play against the bend-back zone on second down that really showed his growth.
At the snap, Marshall identifies the zone stretch and dives inside to attempt to make the tackle from behind. Rutgers instead runs the bend-back, and the H-Back comes late to trap Marshall inside, leaving the back one-on-one with Kyshoen Jarrett with a blocker looming. Marshall is athletic and smart enough to stop, change direction, avoid the trap block by the pulling H-Back, and make a ridiculous tackle in space for a marginal gain. These are the plays which don't stand out on TV, but make huge differences in winning and losing. Corey Marshall against Pitt gets trapped inside. A more mature yet still angry Corey Marshall makes the tackle, and then spikes Silva's pass on the next play to kill the drive.
Sometimes it is scheme and effort, but there were other moments by young players where they go berserker and you say to yourself "that is a bad, bad man."
I give you Exhibit A: Luther Maddy performs a clinic with the swim move.
I give you Exhibit B: Jack Tyler is either a Jedi, or Bud Foster called a well-timed run blitz.
Imagine the running back in crimson and Jack Tyler yelling "BEAT BAMA."
As terrific as Alonzo Tweedy was, Ronny Vandyke was excellent in both coverage and run support as he got several full series and played on passing downs. On one play he knocked Jarrett and Bonner out of the way to finish off a pile. Here, he finishes off the back after a major collision with Jarrett.
Vandyke must be stellar in run support for the 4-4 to work next season, as the whip provides explosive backside pursuit in this alignment instead of scraping across to clean up from the 4-2-5. Here is another example of Vandyke going flat down the line, and having the speed to beat the back to the hole.
Early in the season, opponents picked on Jarrett and Bonner in coverage. Jarrett has more tight end responsibility now, but will continue to have to face man against slot receivers. Rutgers really went after him throughout the game, but Jarrett seemed to be in lockstep with his man and did not get beat for a big play. Despite bulking up to play rover, he also still has ball-hawking instincts. On a critical 3rd-and-long with Rutgers in position to take a big lead, Jarrett jumped a deep crossing route that killed Rutgers last good drive, resulting in a shanked field goal.
He also served as the anvil to Jack Tyler's hammer, with several sticks on the interior. Rutgers backs are glad that they won't play Jarrett next season.
No amount of words can really give enough credit to the Hokie defense, young and old. Bruce Taylor was all over the field. Derrick "MAN-BEAR-PIG" Hopkins was a standout. Kyle Fuller played run support to a T. Dietrick Bonner was in position to make two interceptions. Everyone contributed. However, the biggest play of the game serves as a testament to the two most improved Hokie defenders and Bud Foster's unique scheme.
With the Hokies finally gaining some momentum after a Cody Journell field goal, the defense came out needing to get a stop after a short kickoff. On 3rd-down-and-10, Foster called a unique defensive set that brought into play the unique skills of Alonzo Tweedy and Antone Exum. Foster called a "double X" defense. Normally when teams run this look, they use a safety to bracket the most dangerous wide receiver. In this case, Foster uses Tweedy as the press defender against Brandon Thompson, with Exum playing a deep third safety to provide help over the top.
Rutgers calls a Go route against this coverage, which is a terrible call against a deep safety, HOWEVER, Nova reads that a linebacker is in man coverage on his soon to be NFL drafted wide receiver, and immediately checks to that route. Nova throws quickly as he gets pressure up from Gayle and Marshall. Perhaps to the shock of the Rutgers quarterback, but not to Key Player readers who have seen the Tweedy speed chart, not only is Tweedy with Brandon Thompson, but he is closer to the ball than Thompson is. Also, Exum is in perfect position over the top to make an easy interception on the overthrow.
My writing made it clear from early this season that I was going to be critical of Antone Exum. Nobody other than Logan Thomas had more pressure to perform than Exum, and he put a target on his back by making bold comments in the preseason. I hammered Exum for his inability to come out of breaks and his poor run support early in the season. But, as the season progressed, no Hokie improved more than Antone Exum. He is outstanding in turn and run cover 1. He still can play a deep third using his experience as a safety. He occasionally struggles against deep comeback routes when he backpedals out too early, but his growth leads me to believe that he will fix that weakness. Major credit goes to Antone, who made a difficult transition and improved in the face of harsh criticism.
Alonzo Tweedy has become my Danny Coale for this season. He was relegated to 3rd team whip almost immediately during preseason camp, after a great performance in the Sugar Bowl. He has his degree, and with little chance of a NFL future, he could have just mailed it in and gone through the motions all season. Instead, he excelled as a special teams dynamo and bided his time. When he got his opportunity, he grabbed it with gusto. He is a lesson to all future Hokies about perseverance and, despite the disappointment of this season should give us all a good feeling.
Looking Ahead to #BEATBAMA
You may ask, besides the comedy, why I didn't review any of the offense. The reason is simple. What we saw in the Russell Athletic Bowl most likely is not a reflection for what the Virginia Tech offense will look like in 2013. Other than J.C. Coleman, there was not any yardage gained by a Hokie back or receiver that will be on the team next season. We have no idea if Logan Thomas returns, and if he does, how will he adapt to a new system. We didn't see contributions from young receivers like Demetri Knowles or Kevin Asante (although Willie Byrn got a look at punt returner). The interior of the offensive line was dominated by the Rutgers front four, and who knows if they will be starters next year. Spring practice and fall camp will be full of intrigue on the offensive side of the ball.
Defensively, I think that the defensive line is perfectly suited to counter the strength that Alabama (who loses experience but likely will have tremendous talent up front) brings to the table. This attacking, gap penetrating scheme can confuse inexperienced players, and we have seen the athleticism to make plays after the initial burst improve all season. With improved secondary and a quicker linebacker corps, I think this will continue grow into a dominant defense, and the strength of the team is a great match for the zone blocking one back offense that Alabama utilizes.
In order to take that step, several things need to happen.
- Tariq Edwards must be healthy, and improve over 2011 in taking on and shedding blocks. Alabama targeted the backer in the 2009 encounter, and I would imagine that they will run at Edwards in the 4-4 look.
- If James Gayle does leave for the NFL, J.R. Collins must return to his 2011 form. Dadi Nicolas has the potential to be an explosive pass rusher, but he isn't good enough against the run to be an every down player. Teams will allow him to get upfield, double the defensive tackle, and try to seal the linebacker. I wouldn't be stunned if Ekanem or Wyatt Teller gets a look in the two deep, as the 4-4 somewhat negates the need for the edge rusher.
- Kris Harley must establish himself as a defensive tackle that can play at least 30 percent of the snaps, and the Hokies must find another 2nd team defensive tackle if Collins has to play end.
- The Hokies have to develop one additional cover corner. If there is one thing that I don't like to point out about this defense, it is that Kyle Fuller, while a terrific football player, is not a terrific man-cover corner. Kendall, Manning, Riley, and Tookes will be a terrific battle in fall camp for that coveted spot, which becomes more critical if Exum goes to the NFL.
Until we see a coaching change and/or national signing day, I'll leave you with, LET'S GO HOKIES. BEAT BAMA!